Paul D. Miller/ Dj Spooky, a.k.a That Subliminal Kid, serves a unique mixture of spicy critical theory, well-spliced imagery, diced-up sound and raw pieces of cultural meat.
As a DJ, Spooky has toured internationally with indie icons such as Yoko Ono, Kool Keith (a.k.a. Doctor Octagon,) Killa Priest from Wu-Tang Clan and Thurston Moore. Millers critical writings appear in publications including The Village Voice, hip-hops The Source and arts Artforum. Miller was the first editor-at-large of Artbyte: The Magazine of Digital Cult and is a Professor at The European Graduate School, where he is the youngest scholar teaching with such theorists as Jean Baudrillard and Slavoj Zizek. He grounds his critical theory in his hip-hop roots while his background in French philosophy and Post-Modern thought contextualize his practice as a pioneering DJ.
From May 26 through June 18, 2004, Miller presents at the Paula Cooper
Gallery a 3-minute video remix of D. W. Griffiths Birth of a Nation intercut with scenes from Bill T. Joness 1990 Uncle Toms Cabin and set to music from Millers Underwater Session 2004 remix. A selection of film stills and a separate series of peace propaganda prints accompany Millers re-envisioning of Griffiths technically brilliant yet heinously racist polemic.
Birth of a Nation, based on former North Carolina Baptist minister Rev. Thomas Dixon Jr.'s 1905 bigoted play The Clansman, premiered in 1915. Through the love story of an abolitionist leaders daughter and her southern beau, Griffith tells his version of the Civil War. He begins with the events leading up to the nations rupture and continues through Lincoln's assassination and the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era to the rise of the KKK, who Griffith portrays as majestic heroes protecting white southerners from the heel of the black South." The films 1915 release in New York sparked a major censorship battle between Griffith and the newly-created National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), who fought against the films vicious stereotyping of African-Americans (played in the film by white actors in black-face), its endorsement of exploitative miscegenation and its near-deification of the Klu Klux Klan. The controversy made the film an unprecedented box-office hit, even while riots broke out at screenings in Boston and Philadelphia and it was denied release in many other cities including Chicago, Denver and Minneapolis.
Today, while the film is reviled for its politics, it is revered by film critics and scholars for its cinematic innovations (including the first color sequence.) Its power as propaganda remains unnerving and it is reportedly still used as a recruitment piece for Klan membership. During a private screening at the White House President Woodrow Wilson is reported to have exclaimed: It's like writing history with lightning. Millers Rebirth of a Nation will premiere in mid-May at the Vienna Festival and travel to the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston South Carolina, until it arrives at the Lincoln Center Festival in New York on July 23, 2004. For each performance Miller will mix audio and video on-site and a DVD of Rebirth of a Nation will be released in the upcoming year.
Ana Finel Honigman: How relevant do you think Birth of a Nation is in terms of contemporary American identity and the development of an American cultural mythology?
PM: Very relevant. Americas political amnesia fascinates me. The Bush election in 2000 could easily have been a scene from Birth of a Nation when they turn away the black voters. There is a sense of a total corruption of the electoral process, similar to what happened during the civil war. Media propaganda was used to achieve wartime ends and political agendas then as well as now. All of these issues raised in the film are very current. Birth of a Nation was really the first film to recognize the idea of mass culture on the formation of a nation state as cinema. The film contains the underpinnings of the American imagination and the ways we think about cinema and history are evident in contemporary politics. Look at the election of Schwarzenegger to political office in California. He lacked any proper background as a politician but he was elected to office because people knew his name and recognized his presence on the cultural landscape. In the words of George Santayana, those who do not understand their past are doomed to repeat it. We are seeing a lot of this today.
AFH: In your work would you say that you are responding to the film primarily as cinema or propaganda?
PM: Both, because Birth of a Nation was such extreme propaganda around the construction of race in this country. What I want to do is show we need new roles. We need new ways of viewing both African-Americans and white Americans. It is significant to remember that in this film there are mostly white actors in black-face. The black actors had very limited roles. Therefore there are a lot of issues about servitude and cinematic imagination. Griffiths was trying to act as a catalyst towards these kinds of confused roles that he was trying to crystallize.
AFH: Meaning that he was trying to perpetrate particular racial stereotypes?
PM: Right, in his film the image of the untrustworthy mulatto, the southern
belle, the black rapist, the white overseer had come to roost in American
cinema. And realizing that Halle Berry only won an Academy Award in 2002 proves that these roles still stand as rigid American stereotypes.
AFH: And the role that won Halle Berry the Oscar was itself the most racially stereotypical in her career. Are there other classic films you would cite as more positive predecessors to a contemporary American mythos?
PM: Probably The Jazz Singer, the first talkie.
AFH: Why? Is it because it is a parable of the self-made man?
PM: Yes, and also because of the ways it portrays American issues of class and social hierarchy. It is an interesting portrait of how people use music to bypass these established structures. Another of my key influences is the work of the African-American cinematographer Oscar Micheaux, whose film Within Our Gates is a statement against Birth of a Nation.
AFH: If an idea of the canon is valid, do artists whose work fuelled atrocity, like D. W. Griffith or Leni Riefenstahl, deserve to belong?
PM: As an artist, I am really intrigued by Leni Riefenstahl. Her work and its history exemplifies a lot of the most significant issues around cinema and how a political ideology effects culture - which is exactly what
I am using Birth of a Nation as a tool to interrogate.
AFH: What tools are you using in your interrogation?
AFH: Do you think art is too isolated to affect ideology the way cinema or music can?
PM: Cinema speaks to a much broader audience. It is our global folk-culture. In the same way that electronic music has become our global folk-music, cinema references so many larger-scale issues. Art-world stuff is, in a certain sense, so much more parochial.
AFH: Because it is often perceived as inaccessible?
PM: Because art digs into each artists personal mythology, which is an inherently limited space to explore. Artists who have tried to transition from the art-world to cinema-culture, have a hard time whereas for me being DJ and VJ, most of my work allows me to view a vocabulary with mass-appeal as part of my basic environment. Comparing an artists work to DJ culture is like comparing an atom to a city.
AFH: But by taking a film, which had mass appeal, and re-mixing it using globally accessible DJ vocabulary, are you making art instead of another mass-market product?
PM: With Rebirth of a Nation, I am referencing work like Alan Kaprow's Happenings and Warhols film screening and absorbing a lot of avant-garde cinema to make it into a hip-hop and DJ oriented conceptual art.
AFH: In Rebirth of a Nation, you select particular skills from the film and interlace those appropriated images with abstract forms. How do the designs relate to the narrative?
PM: With Rebirth of a Nation, I am thinking about relational architecture. Each character is assigned an architectural schema they move through. In a certain sense, as their gestures and their goals change and evolve, the blue-print of their emotions evolve. I am sampling their gestures and reconstructing their scenes based on those shifts.
AFH: Which is interesting because the emotional and expressive vocabulary in silent films is already so unfamiliar to us now that its narrative capabilities are closer to dance than contemporary cinema acting.
PM: And the narrative process is based on all these jump-cuts and cut up scenes. I am taking that and making a parallel to DJ culture. I am looking at the semiotics of images. I am linking that cinematograph to cutting and scratching to create sounds. My film is called Rebirth of a Nation because I am using the notion of the DJ-remix and applying it to history.
ANA FINEL HONIGMAN is assistant editor at Artnet Magazine.